The 2017 MLB postseason may be just around the corner, but that does not mean it is too early to look ahead at potential impact free-agent moves that could abound this offseason.
Rumors are already starting to fly about possible destinations for pending free agents, particularly for teams out of the playoff picture with key players on the verge of testing the market. Meanwhile, contenders will be sure to eye pieces to fill in any weaknesses to ensure a return trip to the postseason.
With that in mind, let us take a look at the latest buzz surrounding free agents.
Cincinnati Pushing for Cozart Return?
A brutal rotation and overall lack of pitching contributed to a down year for the Cincinnati Reds, but the National League Central cellar club did produce some unexpected standouts from the plate.
Zack Cozart, along with Scooter Gennett, led the way with a career year as the Reds currently sit in the middle of the pack in the NL in most hitting categories while having the league's worst team ERA. In Cozart's case, he seemed like a prime candidate to hit free agency as a decent infield option, but now his outlook is entirely different.
At 32 years of age, Cozart had never hit over .260, smacked more than 16 home runs or walked more than 40 times in a season. He has shattered all of those career highs in 2017 with a current .302 average, 24 homers and 60 walks in addition to easily setting career bests with a .388 on-base percentage and a .944 OPS.
This transformation puts him in historical company, per noted Reds statistician and author Joel Luckhaupt:
Joel Luckhaupt @jluckhaupt
Zack Cozart will likely set the Reds record for largest difference in season OBP compared to his career total at season's start (1500+ PA). https://t.co/ZI3rMe25j52017-9-14 17:11:22
As a result, many assumed Cincinnati would sell high this summer and deal Cozart, but FanRag Sports' Jon Heyman reported the team may have more long-term plans for the All Star:
"The Reds may try to keep star free agent shortstop Zack Cozart, which would make their decision not to trade him look a lot better. They certainly put a high price on him in trade discussions this summer, asking the Orioles at one point for top prospect Austin Hays, who later became the first player from the 2016 draft to make the majors."
This is certainly an interesting proposition for the Reds, but it has plenty of potential to turn into a miscue.
Cozart's career numbers clearly show that this season is an anomaly, and he did all of it playing on a one-year, $5.3 million deal. That figure, and years, is guaranteed to soar this offseason. So, does a rebuilding team like Cincinnati want to invest so much in a 32-year-old infielder?
The signs show that they are not totally committed to doing so. Heyman reported they placed and then pulled Cozart from revocable waivers after the trade deadline, but only because a team put in a claim. This forced the Reds' hand in not being able to trade him, as it looks like they were definitely interested.
Unless Cozart agrees to a favorable discount, the Reds would be wise to let him walk. He has not shown he can consistently replicate his 2017 production, and five of the team's top 12 prospects are infielders, per MLB.com.
Expect Cozart to eventually hit the free agent market, where more desperate teams are likely to take financial risks.
Japanese Phenom Closer to MLB Jump
Another year, another situation of MLB teams jockeying for the services of a major Japanese baseball star. Yet this looks to be an unprecedented free agency battle in the sport.
Shohei Otani is arguably the most unique, on and off the field, and talented player to ever come out of Japan, and he is only 23 years old.
For his on-field production, Otani has earned the reputation as the Babe Ruth of Japan. Per Baseball-Reference, he exploded for 22 homers, 67 RBI and a .322 average in 2016 before putting up eight jacks, 31 RBI and a .337 mark in 60 games so far this year.
Furthermore, he went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA in 20 starts in 2016, but those numbers dropped in only four appearances this year to 2-2 with a 4.96 ERA. Otani posted double-digit wins and an ERA under 2.65 every year from 2014 to 2016.
It comes as no surprise that he is coveted by MLB teams, and his move took a big step recently. Heyman reported that Otani is interviewing potential agents, and he could even narrow his list down for second interviews by next week.
The role of an agent in Otani's case may not be as influential compared to other big-time free agencies. Since he is under the age of 25, Otani cannot join MLB as a unrestricted free agent, meaning he can only sign with a team via its prospect pool funds.
Right now, it seems the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have the most international pool money at $8 million, per a Heyman report in August. This makes Otani's potential decision more tied into fit than cash.
Whether he demands to be a starter and everyday player is not known, but at worst it appears Otani will be an impact player from either side of the mound. An interesting option could also be making him into a dominant reliever, which puts less wear on his body as an everyday position guy.
Either way, expect Otani to make the jump this offseason and for his name to be arguably the hottest on the free agent market.
Mets Hoping to Strengthen Bullpen
Injuries are the main culprit for the derailment of the New York Mets' season, but do not overlook relief pitching as an extreme weakness.
The bullpen has been historically bad in 2017. As it stands, the unit is third-worst in MLB, with 309 runs conceded along with a second-worst 4.77 ERA. Per Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News, 2017 breaks the 1962 Mets' record of 298 relief runs and is on pace to break that team's record of a 4.76 ERA.
Naturally, one of New York's top priorities this offseason is enhancing that bullpen, according to Heyman.
The team's three top relievers in Jerry Blevins, Jeurys Familia and A.J. Ramos are all either under contract this season or under team control with arbitration rights. That leaves the Mets with a decent foundation and two potential closers in the bullpen, but more help is certainly needed.
New York could make a run at the big names in free agency like Wade Davis, but there are plenty of other solid middle-relief options. Luke Gregerson has thrown plenty of quality innings for the Houston Astros, while others like Brian Duensing, Yusmeiro Petit, former Met Addison Reed and Tony Watson are excellent potential additions that would not break the bank.
If the Mets can finally get some injury luck from its starting pitching to go along with a solid bullpen, this team is more than capable of contending in the NL. With that in mind, expect New York to make a heavy push to sign multiple quality relievers to make another run next season.